Springtime Stew

I know what you’re thinking: spring and stew aren’t normally things that go together. While I’d usually agree, for those of us in the Midwest, we are still waiting for spring. The first week of April gave us about another 12″ of snow followed by actual spring weather that melted the majority of the snow, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have some more snow. I recalled having to delay my birthday last year because we’d gotten 10″ of heavy wet snow and sighed. To cheer myself up, I pulled a newfound favorite recipe out of my large collection: chorizo and white bean stew. It’s perfect for this transitional time: the spicy broth and spinach help lighten and brighten it up, but it is still quite filling.

While it looks pretty fancy and complicated, the ingredients can be found easily and requires very little equipment: a knife, a cutting board and a skillet. Best of all, the dish is quick and made in one pot. I’m not too familiar with chorizo, but knew it had a bit of heat. The first time I made the stew, I wasn’t sure if I could find it at the store. I debated using Italian sausage like the recipe suggested, but I feared the very different flavor profiles might spoil the taste. I ended up finding chorizo prepackaged by the sausages/brats as well as fresh links in the meat/deli counter and went for it.

Best. Decision. Ever.

Since everything is cooked in the same skillet, the broth picked up a nice spicy bite from the chorizo (something I wouldn’t have achieved  if I had subbed the Italian sausage) with some yummy caramelized hints of onion and garlic. I am usually not a fan of broths, but I would have been happy to just have a bowl of it. I love to make it when the Vidalia onions are in season. I am not an onion fan, but Vidalias manage to change my mind. The spinach was lightly wilted, not slimy, making it a good way to convince skeptical friends and family spinach isn’t such a bad vegetable.

Even with all the prep work (and I’m kinda slow at prepping), it really did take about 45 minutes to get it on the table. I used a mandolin to slice my onions thinly; they were much easier to eat and they browned quicker and more evenly. The chorizo I bought was larger than the ones used in the magazine, making getting one “perfect” spoonful with all the ingredients difficult, so next time I will chop the chorizo smaller as well as rip the spinach up (our store’s version of “baby spinach” is not too accurate). If people will be eating the stew at different times, I would suggest letting people add spinach to their own bowls instead of adding it all to the skillet.

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Chorizo & White Bean Stew

From Bon Appetit, February 2013 issue
Serves 4; Prep: 45 mins

Click here for a printable version

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more for drizzling
  • 1 pound fresh Mexican chorizo or Italian sausage links
  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 sprig thyme
  • 2 15-ounce cans cannellini (white kidney) beans, rinsed
  • 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
  • 5 ounces baby spinach (about 10 cups)
  • Smoked paprika (optional) 
  • Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add sausage and cook, turning occasionally, until browned and cooked through, 15-20 minutes. Transfer sausage to a plate.

  • Reduce heat to medium. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in same skillet. Add onion, garlic, and thyme sprig. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened, 5-8 minutes. Add beans and broth and cook, crushing a few beans with the back of a spoon to thicken sauce, until slightly thickened, 8-10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add spinach by handfuls and cook just until wilted, about 2 minutes. 

  • Slice chorizo and fold into stew; add water to thin, if desired. Divide stew among bowls; drizzle with oil and sprinkle with paprika, if desired.
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Happy Spring!!

Yesterday was the first day of spring, although it sure didn’t feel like it in Nebraska. It was pretty chilly, but not as bad as Minnesota, where my friends and family were dealing with tons of snow and very chilly temperatures.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy spring anyway! To me, spring means bright colors and bright flavors and glazed citrus doodles seemed like the perfect recipe to try!

The cookies were quick to make and smelled amazing when they came out of the oven. I’m not normally a fan of lemon flavor in desserts, and I actually debated just doing all orange, but I’m glad I didn’t. The lemon didn’t overwhelm the cookie or the glaze, it just added a nice zippy brightness.

The glaze proved to be more time consuming than making the actual cookies. I decided to place the cookies on metal cooling racks and then glaze them so the extra glaze would drip away–an excellent idea since the glaze is very sweet and each cookie doesn’t need much on top. I also used an offset spatula to help drizzle the glaze more uniformly on each cookie.

When the recipe appeared in the magazine, I noticed a few tweets and complaints to the editors that their cookies didn’t come out correctly or tasted poorly. I didn’t have any issues, but there are some things to note:

-When it says cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy for about three minutes, cream the ingredients for three minutes. It may sound like a long time, but it really does make a difference. Having softened butter and room temperature eggs will also greatly help.

-When zesting the lemons and oranges, make sure you don’t zest down to the pith, or the white part of the fruit. It’s bitter and will definitely make your citrus tones not pleasant.

Glazed Citrus Doodles (from Everyday Food)

  • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons grated orange zest, plus 3 tablespoons juice (from 2 oranges)
  • 4 teaspoons lemon zest, plus 3 tablespoons juice (from 2 lemons)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees, with racks in upper and lower thirds. Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat butter, granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon orange zest, and 2 teaspoons lemon zest on medium-high until pale and fluffy, 3 minutes, scraping down bowl as needed. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add flour mixture; beat to combine.
  • Roll dough into 1-inch balls and place, 2 inches apart, on parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake until edges are lightly golden, 12 to 15 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through. Let cool on sheets on wire racks 5 minutes, then transfer cookies to racks and let cool completely.
  • Whisk together 1 tablespoon orange zest, 2 teaspoons lemon zest, citrus juices, and confectioners’ sugar until smooth. With a small spoon, spread glaze over each cookie. Let set 1 hour. Cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to three days.

Turkey Gobblers For Nova

Last week I had half a roll of ground turkey left over from our dinner and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. I thought about saving it for another recipe, but I couldn’t think of another recipe that used such a small amount of turkey so I went back to my cookbooks, kept searching and found my answer in the Three Dog Bakery Cookbook. It was Nova’s lucky day.

I ended up altering the recipe because our cornmeal was expired, but she seemed to love them regardless. I even added a bit of cheese on top to some larger cookies, and mixed in about a teaspoon’s worth of cheese when I rerolled the dough. She got a few in her birthday box and I froze the rest for later.

Turkey Gobblers (adapted from Three Dog Bakery Cookbook)

-1 C ground turkey
-2 C white flour
-1/2 C quick oats
-1/2 C whole wheat flour
-1 egg
-3 T vegetable oil
-3/4 C water
-2 t parsley, fresh or dried

  • Preheat the oven to 375.
  • In a frying pan, cook the ground turkey, crumble into small pieces. Set aside on a paper towel to drain.
  • In a large bowl, combine the flours and oatmeal; in a small bowl, beat the egg, oil and water, then add the parsley.Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix well. Fold in the ground turkey and mix well again. If the dough seems a bit too dry, add a few tablespoons of water (I added about two).
  • Turn dough out on a lightly floured surface and knead until thoroughly mixed together. Roll out dough to 1/2-inch thick and cut out into shapes.
  • Placed on greased cookie sheets (or sheets lined with parchment) and bake for about 15 minutes, or until firm (reduce time if  your cookies are smaller). Cool, then serve. Store any leftovers in a sealed container in the fridge for up to one week, or freeze.

Nova got four cookies in her birthday box; the rest are in the freezer…

Birthday Cake For Nova

I was already having enough trouble coping with it being mid-January when I realized that also meant Nova’s first birthday was coming up. I couldn’t believe she was going to be a year old already….It felt like a few months ago she was still a tiny puppy, curious about the world and all chubby. Then, while I’m having a precious flashback moment, she does something naughty like steal socks from the laundry and her late teen attitude quickly reminds me otherwise while I chase her down for the sock.

Birthdays mean three things: a party with loved ones, gifts and food. Dog or not, Nova was going to have all three. It seemed only fair since my other two dogs always have parties of their own. The party would be small, probably just Mike and I, letting Nova do all her favorite things (chasing balls in the basement or cuddling on the couch) but if the weather wasn’t too bad, maybe a trip to the dog park on the weekend to celebrate with her dog park friends. Gifts were easy, too: some new treats, a toy and a chewable of some sort, either an antler or a Himalyan dog chew (if your dog is a power chewer, these are your best bets: they last for months) and a Flexi leash. But what to do about food?

Nova loves all types of foods and I love any excuse to bake so I thought it would be fun to make her a dog birthday cake. I did some searching and found one I knew she’d love: carrot peanut butter cake. I decided to bake a batch now so if they failed or weren’t any good, I still had time to try again.

I didn’t have a six cup cupcake tin so I improvised and used a standard 12 cup tin; I ended up with nine. One of the corners of a cupcake broke off and I decided to eat it. They were in desperate need of sugar to make them tasty for people, but the cake itself was nice and moist and the mix of carrot and peanut butter tasted much better than it sounded. I frosted one cupcake with a mix of cream cheese and chunky peanut butter and topped it with a chunk of apple before serving it to a very impatient Nova.

Cooling muffins

Nova sat in front of the counter the whole time they cooled, hoping I might give her one early

Cupcakes up close

Can I eat it now?!

“Foods? For me? Can I eat it now?”

To my surprise, Nova didn’t inhale it like I figured she would. Instead she licked off most of the frosting (more proof she is my puppy), then stared at it, puzzled at what to do next. I ended up cutting it into wedges for her.

Nomnomnom

Much easier to eat in wedges: nomnomnom!

Licked clean

Licking up every last crumb

In a matter of minutes, she had devoured the cupcake and licked the plate clean, which she then shoved my way and gave me a look that said, “why is my plate empty?” I told her they were all gone, but she is smart and her nose told her otherwise. I wrapped the leftovers in foil and stashed them in the freezer, clearly marking the bag “cupcakes for Nova” so Mike didn’t think I had made him muffins and have an…interesting surprise when he ate one at work. If she’s just as crazy about them on her birthday, I might make another batch in a mini muffin tin and keep them on hand when she deserves an extra yummy reward or more incentive to do something (ie: bath time).

“Mom, you liiiied, there are more cupcakes!”

Carrot Peanut Butter Doggie Cupcake (adapted from ROMP Italian Greyhound Rescue)

Ingredients:
1 large egg
1/4 cup peanut butter
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup honey
1 cup shredded carrots
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 12 cup cupcake tin with cupcake papers, or lightly grease each cup. Combine the egg, peanut butter, oil, and honey in a large bowl. Add in the carrots and stir to combine.

Combine the flour and baking soda in a small bowl and add to the carrot mixture. Stir until fully incorporated. Divide among prepared cupcake tins. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few crumbs on it. Remove from oven and let cool on wire rack. If desired, frost tops with a little peanut butter, a mix of softened cream cheese and peanut butter, melted carob, low fat cottage cheese, wet dog food, etc.

Best of 2012: Food

This year I branched out and sharpened my cooking and baking skills. I’ve always enjoyed watching cooking programs and learning about new ingredients and recipes, but this year it went from “oh, that looks like it would be good” or “so that’s how you use that/that’s what that is” to actually incorporating the ingredients, techniques and recipes into my life.

More people have asked me for advice or questions about food and it’s been pretty awesome to share what I’ve learned. I’ve had my share of food related disasters, so if I can help someone prevent them or become more interested in food, I’m all for it! For example, my mom mentioned she made a batch of chocolate cookies and just used the cocoa powder instead of the of Dutch process cocoa she’s had for a while. I was able to tell her the difference between the two and why you can’t swap them out (Dutch cocoa has a neutral pH so it can’t be used in recipes with baking soda, which relies on the acid to activate it).

I’ve had lots of tasty encounters with food, but here are the most memorable ones:

Bacon: I love bacon. A lot. Possibly too much, at least according to others. Bacon seemed to appear in almost every area of life, from fashion (the insanely expensive and lifelike bacon scarf) to desserts (Burger King’s bacon sundae) to the possible “aporkalypse,” which didn’t happen (thank goodness!!!). I didn’t think I could love bacon more than I do, but I was wrong.

One of my good friends, Justin, took me to Frank Stoysich Meats on Q Street in Omaha to pick up some homemade sausages. While we waited for the woman to gather his order, we noticed a slab of bacon in the case. Knowing I like bacon, he generously bought me a pound. I decided to fry some for breakfast so I took out the normal amount of six slices and put ’em in the frying pan. I noticed it wasn’t nearly as fatty as other bacon-something I’d never really seen before. That first taste was heavenly. The flavor was much more meaty and pure. Even Mike was impressed. We ate our three slices each, but it was so much more filling than store bought bacon, we would have been satisfied with just two each. From that moment on, I was hooked on the Stoysich bacon. I rationed what we had left, using it for “special” times. Since then, every time Justin is in town, we stop in and get more. It is actually much cheaper to buy the super tasty bacon than store bacon, and since we don’t need as much, it lasts muuuuch longer. Even the bacon fat, which takes longer to stockpile, tastes better.

German chocolate: My mom and I lived in Germany when I was little. I have fond memories of many of the places we visited (the Christmas marketplace) as well as lots of their foods (Butterkäse, Schneebälle), but German chocolate holds a special place in my heart. When we paid our rent, the landlady would always give me a few pieces of chocolate shaped like cute little ladybugs. Once she discovered how much I loved it, she started leaving a small bowlful out in front of their door. German chocolate doesn’t taste like chocolates you can find in the U.S. or most of the chocolate I’ve tried from Britain. The “real deal “is pretty hard to find in stores, so when I found some in ALDI, I was ecstatic and shocked. Once I confirmed they were legit, I stocked up. I was even able to find an advent calendar. As soon as we got to the car, I unwrapped one and popped it in my mouth and instantly felt like I was back in Germany, enjoying my candy on our steps while I admired the geraniums in all the window boxes.

Cumin: I am not very knowledgeable with spices used outside of baking. I try to keep the basics for cooking on hand, but if a recipe that I haven’t tried yet calls for something I don’t have, I usually just leave it out. Not the best idea, I know, but I don’t really want to buy it then hate it and have wasted the money. Plus, if I’ve had a dish in the past that was awful, I tend to remember the spices in a not so flattering way. Cumin was one of those spices. I had it in an Indian dish that was loaded with cumin and who knows what else and it was so spicy, I decided to avoid it from then on. However, I had saved a few recipes from Martha Stewart and both of them used cumin. I was skeptical, but after reading reviews and seeing a handful of people note even their picky children loved the taste, I added cumin to the list. The amounts used in each recipe was so small, I figured if I didn’t like the flavor, next time I made it, I could adjust as needed. To my amazement, I have learned to love cumin. I think cumin is the first spice not used in baking that I’ve actually had to run out and replace. It does have a distinct, fairly strong flavor and smell, but in certain recipes, it doesn’t seem overpowering. I am much more open minded to try recipes that have less common spices and have started to add some to my spice rack I never thought I’d buy.

Leeks: I am so bummed I didn’t try leeks sooner. I am not an onion person, but I do like the subtle flavor they add to dishes, but I always assumed leeks had a harsher onion flavor and had no clue how to cook them so I avoided them. I started to change my mind after seeing various British chefs use them on TV and in their cookbooks for their mild flavor. Once I did a search for recipes using leeks, I realized everyone knew how tasty they could be. As I mentioned in a previous post, leeks are quite a pain to clean, but so worth it. I know leeks, cream and bacon are a wonderful combination, but I’m looking forward to trying them thinly sliced in salads or a frittata as well as in stews.

Pan roasting: I can’t believe I didn’t attempt to try pan roasting sooner, and I can’t believe it isn’t a skill taught in every cookbook. If you aren’t familiar with this technique, Google it and give it a try. It is unbelievably quick (you can have dinner done in under an hour), easy and seriously tasty. I think the word “roasting” scared me away, especially since I wasn’t too successful roasting whole chickens in the past.

Pan roasting consists of two steps: first, searing off the meat in some oil, then finished in an oven.  We eat a ton of chicken in our household and pan roasting has turned chicken from ordinary and boring to something flavorful. I have become a pro at roasting chicken parts, mainly legs and bone-in thighs, which has saved us a bunch of money (who doesn’t love that?). Pan roasting is a great way to make vegetables more exciting, too. I LOVE to roast potatoes–they satisfy my cravings for French fries without adding lots of extra fat. Other favorite vegetables to roast include carrots, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, onions and squashes. I suggest making more than you need; leftover roasted veggies are delicious mixed into cooked rice, on bread with a bit of goat cheese or reheated in the oven for another meal. Plus, you usually only have to use one pan, which means less time doing dishes and more time doing fun stuff!

Everyday Food Magazine: In the fall, Martha Stewart announced how Everyday Food was published would be changing. The magazine’s last stand alone issue would be December, and would instead be a supplement to Martha Stewart Living. I subscribe to MSL and I enjoy all the crafts and looking at the fancy recipes, but I love Everyday Food much more. The recipes were much easier to make, the ingredients were easier to find and it was one of the few publications that included recipes for one or two people. I’m interested to see what the supplement will look like, and I do appreciate the daily emails sent out, but I’m old fashioned: I like to have a hard copy of the recipe in front of me!

Cooking without a recipe: When I try a brand new recipe, I tend to follow the directions to the letter. If it’s tasty enough to make again, then I’ll make adjustments as needed, but I am not so great at making something up from scratch (especially when all I have to work with is what we’ve got in the house). I’ve watched hours of cooking shows like Chopped, so you’d think I’d be fearless enough to just go for it.

Sure, I tend to keep emergency meals on hand like mac and cheese or frozen pizzas, but sometimes I just can’t face a premade meal. Thanks to spending hefty amounts of time out of state, I usually come home to an interesting selection of ingredients I’m kind of forced to use until we can make it to the store.

My favorite no recipe meal would be a frittata. We always have eggs on hand and with a bit of hunting, I can find enough add ins to make a tasty meal (I do bacon, scallion, potato and bell peppers a lot). However, my results don’t always turn out well. The only meal I’ve seriously failed would be the almost cooked bone-in turkey breast. Our fridge had died and by the time we noticed, we had to find fridge and freezer space ASAP. We brought most of food to his parents’ house, but there was no room for the turkey breast so I had to cook it that night. Despite being overly cautious and letting the turkey cook an extra 20 minutes, when we carved it, the meat was raw. I did my best to fix the situation (I threw all the pieces into the gravy I had made from the drippings and finished cooking it in the pan), but it was pretty awful. A more successful (but not by much) recipe: crunchy, spicy mustard chicken legs. We had a bunch of chicken legs that had to be used, so I decided to brush the legs in spicy mustard then coat them in a mix of panko, parsley and a bit of Parmesan. They didn’t taste bad, but the coating didn’t stick as well as I hoped and what did stick didn’t brown enough. I think with a bit more work, it could be another favorite dinner.

Cactus fries: I know you can eat cactus, but I certainly never expected to try them in Nebraska. We met our friend downtown in the Old Market at Roja Mexican Grill & Margarita Bar. Mike and I had already eaten, so we didn’t order anything, but we did try their guacamole (which was free thanks to a check in on FourSquare) and the cactus fries. The fries were lightly coated and fried and they were pretty darn tasty. If you ever see them on a menu, they’re definitely worth a try!

Avocado egg rolls: Last Christmas, Mike’s parents and Mike and I got gift cards to Kona Grill. We went during happy hour, which gave us the chance to try some appetizers at half price (which is a GREAT deal). We decided on the avocado egg rolls with honey-cilantro dipping sauce. I am not a huge fan of avocado, but I must confess I liked these a lot. I was surprised the filling was so soft and creamy and warm-a nice contrast to the crunchy wrapper. They had a bit of onion and bell pepper in them and the dipping sauce added the hint of sweetness they needed. We all liked them so much, I did my best to deconstruct the ingredients so I could try to make them at home.

Supreme: I love grapefruit, but since I don’t have the best grapefruit knife ever (my mom insisted she keep it and sadly, Crate & Barrel doesn’t make them anymore), I usually don’t buy them. The grocery store had samples of some Rio reds out and they were so sweet and juicy I had to buy six. I debated cutting them into wedges like an orange, but I took a chance and looked up segmenting (also called a supreme) citrus fruits. If you attempt this, you’ll need a REALLY sharp paring knife. It looks a lot scarier and harder than it is, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll find all sorts uses for the membrane-free sections: tarts, salads, pies, compotes….

Ted & Wally’s wasabi ice cream: If you’ve followed my blog for a bit, you’ll probably know I LOVE Ted & Wally’s Premium Homemade Ice Cream. All of their ice creams (including vegan and diabetic-friendly ), sorbets and yogurts are homemade with fresh, all-natural and usually local) ingredients made the old fashioned way: slow-churned with rock salt. The flavors change daily (or during summer months, hourly) and range from traditional (Dutch chocolate, vanilla, chocolate chip) to unexpected (french toast bacon–it just won the annual Baconraiser competition, blueberry banana, salty seahorse, Monster Energy Drink sorbet, white chocolate caviar). If you think something would make a great ice cream/sorbet/yogurt flavor, they are more than happy to give it a shot.

They’ll let you try as many flavors as you want, but wasabi has to be one of the weirdest ones I’ve ever tried. I don’t like wasabi with sushi so I highly doubted I’d like it in ice cream form, but I couldn’t pass up the chance, especially since it used fresh wasabi instead of the powdered or premade kind. The ice cream itself was a soft, pale green and nice and creamy on your tongue; it was definitely much more muted than eating wasabi normally, but certainly left its trademark spicy punch at the end. It was sweeter than I thought it would be, but I opted to get a different flavor.

Cheddar bacon potato chips: I spent yesterday with my best friend Jill wandering around the Albertville Premium Outlet Mall in Albertville, MN. We initially passed KLN Family Brands, but saw chips in the window and decided to go inside (what can I say, we like to eat). Based in Minnesota, it is their only outlet store and they carry some of their more unique products/flavors. When Jill and I saw the cheddar bacon potato chips, we grabbed a few bags without hesitating. Potatoes, cheese and bacon–how could that be bad? We barely made it out of the store and I had opened my bag and eaten one. Yum. Yummy yum yuuuum. The chips were the perfect blend of smoky bacon flavor and cheese. I let my mom and aunt try some when I got home. Big mistake. They were also hooked. I promptly hid them so I could take them home with me. The salesclerk informed us it was the only place that carried the cheddar bacon or ketchup flavored chips and people come from all over just to buy them in bulk. At $2.50 a bag, I am more than happy to be one of those people.

There are tons of food ideas I didn’t get around to trying this year (making candy, making more pies and breads, making homemade dog treats for Nova, making pasta from scratch), so I am going to make it a point to try them in 2013. Are there any food experiences you enjoyed in 2012? Do you have a favorite ingredient or cooking style you love that you think I should explore?

Christmas Cookies

My family has Christmas on Christmas Eve so I got to spend Christmas with my best friend Jill. We always make time to hang out when I’m in town, but this get together was extra special: I was finally able to see her new house and we were going to break in her kitchen and bake up a storm!

Jill’s house had two things I was horribly jealous about: her killer pantry and an oven that also did convection. I ooohed over the oven and excitedly told her to let me know how it works when she uses it. She just laughed, admitted she barely knew how to use the oven on its regular baking settings and that next time I was over I could break in the convection (I’ve already looked up how to cook/bake things that way and bookmarked the pages). I also drooled over her one extra large burner. I have some hefty pans that barely fit on our burners and I’m very curious how hers would handle my pans.

The pantry of my dreams…

Her microwave also does convection

We had some basic cookie supplies, but Jill isn’t as avid a baker as I am so we didn’t have a lot of basic kitchenwares we needed. Thankfully, her parents live five minutes away so we raided her mom’s kitchen and were set!

We initially set up this baking day to make a cookie we’d seen on Pinterest called Meltaways. However, we thought we were short on supplies (extra blocks of room temperature cream cheese) so we went to plan “B:” Betty Crocker cookie mixes in the pouches. I have only used the premade mixes once (I feel if I’m going to make cookies, it’s just as much work to make them from scratch), so I was a bit iffy how they’d taste. I was happy to see all the mixes called for butter (yay!). They were quite easy to make and more importantly, they tasted good. We ended up making one batch of chocolate coated chip cookies and a double batch of mint chip cookies. To make things more festive, we dyed the mint cookies red and green.

The first batch of cookies!

Our very festive mint cookies made the whole kitchen smell wonderful. It was hard to not to eat them by the handful…

We took a quick lunch break and started on the Meltaways. Thanks to her severely shattered iPhone, we’d misread the amount of cream cheese we needed….Oops.

The Meltaways claim they can be made in under an hour and we were able to make them very quickly, but the recipe we used was a little too vague. I mean, they turned out fine, but it would have been helpful to have an idea what the cookies should look and feel like when they’re done (slightly browned on the edges, set in the center, etc.) instead of just 10 to 12 minutes. The recipe calls for pressing the dough with a glass dipped in powdered sugar, but when Jill went to do it, she thought she needed to dust the dough, then press, but I suggested we lightly grease the bottom of the glass with butter, dip it in powdered sugar, press and redip in sugar as needed. She also didn’t know how thick or thin the cookies needed to be when we pressed them. The first couple were too thin, but we got the hang of it.

The ingredients are very basic: flour, powdered sugar, butter, vanilla and cornstarch. Yes, cornstarch. I’ve seen recipes that say to use/add cornstarch to make a softer cookie so I was curious to see what the dough would feel like.

Jill was VERY excited to put her canisters to use, and loves to play with flour (something that started as a child baking with her family)

The second tray of Meltaways

The dough was very soft and felt like a smoother version of play dough. It scooped out into some of the nicest looking rounds of dough I’ve ever seen. Our goal was to dye the dough yellow and do the cream cheese frosting in blue as a nod to Hanukkah, but we were using liquid coloring and our blue wasn’t what we wanted so we did purple. I wasn’t sure how much frosting to put on top, but since the frosting is just powdered sugar, vanilla and cream cheese, I knew it’d be pretty sweet so I went fairly light.

The finished product!

We were so excited to try the Meltaways, but I think all the sugar and junk food we’d eaten earlier in the day ruined our tastebuds because neither of us was too impressed with the cookie. They weren’t bad, but not as magical as we’d hoped. I brought a bunch of cookies home and had my mom and aunt try the Meltaways; they both loved them and thought they were quite tasty. I was planning to try one the following day, but the ladies had eaten all the ones I brought home.

I loved spending the day with Jill and I think it’s one of my favorite Christmas memories to date. I haven’t baked with someone else in aaaaaaaages and I’d forgotten how much fun it is. Even doing the dishes was kind of fun, and I hate doing the clean up!! We don’t know when we’ll be able to get together again, but we’ve already started planning our next baking adventure.

Sweets Swap: Peanut Butter Dreams

I’ve always wanted to do a cookie swap, but I never really think about it until it’s the holidays and everyone is too busy to participate. Mike’s work usually does a food day once a month to celebrate birthdays and quite a few people participate. I’m good friends with a couple of people from his work and had the great idea to pitch a cookie swap to them and see if they’d do it with me and to my delight, seven other ladies agreed to participate! However, we decided to put a spin on it and broaden it from just cookies to sweets of various sorts, like cupcakes and candies. We set it up as at least one treat per person because no one’s ever done one of these before and this seemed like a good way to introduce people to the format. I think if it’s successful, we’ll probably do another one the “correct way.”

Back in January 2011, I started my quest to bake/make at least half the items from the Bon Appetit Desserts book. It seemed like an easy task, but there’s only so many occasions I can bake things for, so many ingredients I can find to make some of the things or it’s just too risky to try them out before a big holiday event (and by before, I mean hearing two days before said event). As a result, I think I’ve only made three or four things out of the book. The sweets swap gave me the perfect chance to add another one to the list. I pondered for days about what to make. I had soooooo many choices–too many choices…..I eventually narrowed it down to about six choices and when I wasn’t able to make a decision, I handed the slip and various recipes to Mike and asked him to choose. He narrowed it down to maple stars and peanut butter dreams. The maple stars sounded yummy, but I wanted to branch out from cookies, so I chose the peanut butter dreams.

The peanut butter dreams were a three whisk recipe, which meant they’d be pretty tough, but I felt up for the challenge. Besides, what fun is it to always pass over a harder recipe you’ve always wanted to try? It doesn’t mean you can’t do it, it just means you’ll have to be patient and willing to try again if something goes wrong. It also means it’s a good idea to buy more ingredients than you actually need so if there is a screw up, you don’t have to run back to the store, or more likely send someone out to pick up more for you while you clean up the massive amount of mess and dishes that suddenly appeared. Don’t try to substitute cheaper chocolate or a different brand of cream cheese (or go for a low fat version). All the recipes in the Bon Appetit were thoroughly tested using various brands of ingredients and what the book lists ensures you’ll end up with a great product.

Peanut butter dreams are kind of a cross between a peanut butter cup and a truffle, with lovely crunchies on the outside. Years ago, I made truffles and they turned out well, and I had made a quick caramel sauce for tatins a handful of times so a candy that combined truffle skills, caramel and dipping seemed like a logical next step.

Helpful hint before starting this recipe: you’ll need your freezer or fridge to chill and set the chocolate so make sure you’ve got room BEFORE you start. We have a side by side model and it’s pretty nice, but it is totally against me freezer-wise. I can’t fit larger cookie sheets or larger containers in there without a lot of Tetris-like reorganizing (grabbing items for dinner that night was quite a trick) and trying to do that and make sure the centers didn’t melt was harder than it needed to be.

My first mishap was making the praline. I am very inexperienced when it comes to working with sugar for candy, and despite following the instructions and looking up extra instructions online, I still managed to seize my first batch of sugar. I was pretty upset, but it was kind of a good thing really. I was able to figure out what had gone wrong (I had sugar crystals around the edge of the pan that contaminated the batch) and what to look for the second time. Transforming sugar for candy is definitely not a process you can rush or squeeze into your day (at least not for the average person) or try when you have distractions (in my case our puppy). While it is a pain to start over, a sugar burn is VERY painful and something you definitely want to avoid at all costs! An easy way to help prevent crystals: keep a cup of warm water next to the stove and use a wet pastry brush to carefully wipe the crystals off/help them dissolve back into the sugar. I even dipped my spatula in the warm water and wiped it off occasionally to make sure I wasn’t stirring any crystals into the sugar and water. If you’re unsure if the sugar is fully dissolved, drop a tiny bit of the mixture onto your fingertips–be careful, the mix is very hot so I wet my fingertips first. If you feel any graininess, keep going! I also noticed when it gets fairly close to being fully dissolved, the mixture looks shimmery.

I’ve been successful melting milk chocolate and dark chocolate, but my first attempt with white chocolate didn’t go so well. I think my burner was too hot so my water was probably more at a boil, melting the chocolate at too high of a temperature, causing it to sort of scorch. Once I kept the water at a low simmer everything went smoothly. I also chopped the chips up a bit. Don’t forget to check how much water you have in the bottom of your pot for your double boiler, too. If you’re making a double boiler with a glass bowl set over a pot, be careful you don’t let any steam or water get into your chocolate. It’ll seize and you’ll have to start over. Using a glass bowl will also allow you to see if you need to adjust the temperature of the burner and if you have too much water in the pot (the water shouldn’t touch the bottom of the bowl).

I also discovered I am pretty awful at dipping candies. I tried the method listed in the recipe: rolling around in the chocolate, lift out with fork, tap and slide off with knife, but when I used the knife to slide it off, I ended up nicking the center and it left a hole. I tried it for a second piece, thinking maybe I just needed to get the hang of it, but I had the same issue. I remembered watching a chef stick a toothpick in the center of a truffle and dipping it with great success so I gave it a shot. I wasn’t as successful. Eventually, I went back to the fork method, but instead of sliding it off with a knife, I flipped it upside down and tapped it off. There was still a hole, but I was able to glob extra on with the knife. When I was all done, I was pretty bummed. They were not attractive. At all. There was no doubt they were handmade by a novice, but my mom said it just gave them character. I like character and all, but when it comes to food, the shallow idea of “pretty looking” would have been more appreciated. I pondered trimming off the excess chocolate with a knife once they were chilled, but to my surprise when they cooled, the chocolate had evened itself off pretty darn well. One of them was even nice enough you might have thought it came from a box of candy you buy at the store. By batch three, I switched over to a two-pronged meat fork and it ended up working the best. There was enough room to let the excess chocolate drip off and when I plopped it on the waxed paper, I didn’t gouge chunks out of the bottom. If you plan on doing a double batch, you will probably have to stop and put the centers back in the freezer or they’ll be so soft the warm chocolate will deform them. Don’t let that issue scare you from trying the recipe: there is an easy fix and no one will know about your troubles or poor dipping skills!

When you coat them in a bit of chocolate before rolling them in the praline, you can smooth out any lumps or bumps (the proof is in the pictures below; don’t forget to click on them to see my extra comments). And whatever you can’t fix that way will be hidden by the chunky bits of praline!! If you’re wondering why there aren’t any pictures of this process…..it’s messy. Very messy. My first piece of candy I dipped and rolled in the praline didn’t go as smoothly as the recipe made it seem. I had chocolate all over my hands, the praline dish and the cookie sheet. I suggest enlisting some help to make the process easier. If you do it alone, or your helper declines like mine did, use a spoon to help you roll it around and tongs to lift it out. Or, if you figure out a way to be successful using the recipe’s directions, please share your secrets with me.

I ended up with 16 instead of 18. I “sacrificed” the two that looked the worst for Mike and I to try. I certainly didn’t want to send something for the swap that tasted bad….They were delicious, even the one that had probably five times as much chocolate on it as it needed. The cream cheese made the centers nice and, well, creamy and helped to balance out all the sweetness. They were worth all the troubles and effort they require. I decided to make a double batch the next day so the sweets swap participants could have more than just two. Two just seemed too small to give for the swap, and I figured if I have to measure everything out and do all the steps once, it’s not that much more work to do it twice.

I was able to coat all three batches of candy with the first batch of praline I made, and still had quite a bit left over. I imagine the ground up batch would be delicious over ice cream. I brought the second batch of unground praline back to Minnesota with me and my mom, aunt and I ate it like candy.

I had taken a huge risk by sending such a complicated, time consuming recipe (printed out, the recipe was two pages), but knew I made the right choice when a few of the swap participants gave the candies excellent feedback. I will no doubt make these again in the future, and I hope it will convince me to be brave and try some other types of candy, but I will definitely look for better tools and supplies. Having the right tools for the job always makes things easier. Nebraska is lovely, but not really the place to look for the majority of the higher quality ingredients or supplies I need. I could have gotten what I needed off Amazon, but that’s not an option when you need them right now. I’m hoping while I’m back in Minnesota, I can hit up Lynn’s Cake & Candy Supply and stock up on stuff, like a block or two of some Callebaut chocolate. And larger candy cups. Some of my candies were a liiiiiiiittle too big for the ones I had!

If you decide to make these lovely little candies or another type of candy, please share your results/issues/questions!

Peanut Butter Dreams (makes about 16-18, from Bon Appetit Desserts)

  • 3/4 C powdered sugar, plus more for dusting hands
  • 1/3 C super-chunky peanut butter (NOT old-fashioned or freshly ground)
  • 2 oz Philadelphia-brand cream cheese, room temperature
  • 2 oz high-quality white chocolate, melted and cooled (ex: Callebaut, Lindt or Ghirardelli)
  • 2 T (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 12 oz high-quality milk chocolate, chopped (ex: Callebaut, Lindt or Ghirardelli)
  • Peanut Praline (see recipe below)
  • 18 (about) paper candy cups

Equipment:

  • Double boiler
  • Scale
  • Waxed paper
  • Baking sheets
  • Candy thermometer (optional)
  • Mixer
  • Food processor

Make the peanut praline (about 2 C):

  • 1 C sugar
  • 1/4 C water
  • 1 C roasted salted peanuts

Butter a baking sheet (DO NOT use cooking spray-it will dry long before you get the praline made and poured). Cook sugar and 1/4 C water in a heavy, small saucepan over low heat, stirring until sugar dissolves completely. Increase heat to medium and boil without stirring until syrup is deep golden brown. Mix in peanuts.
Immediately pour mixture onto prepared sheet (be careful-the sugar is very hot and can easily burn you). Cool completely. Break into 2-inch pieces. Using on/off turns, grind finely in a food processor. 

** Can be made 2 months ahead. Cover refrigerate in an airtight container**

For peanut butter-chocolate centers:

Blend 3/4 C powdered sugar, peanut butter, cream cheese, melted white chocolate and butter in a medium bowl. Freeze until firm enough to shape, about 20 minutes.

Line 2 baking sheets with waxed paper. Using hands dusted with powdered sugar, roll 1 T peanut butter mixture into a ball (you can refreeze mixture if it becomes too soft to handle). Place on 1 prepared sheet. Repeat with remaining mixture. Freeze until very firm, about 3 hours.

Stir milk chocolate in top of double boiler over barely simmering water until melted and smooth. Remove from over water. Working quickly, submerge 1 peanut butter ball in chocolate, tilting pan if necessary. Using a dinner fork, lift out candy. Tap bottom of fork on sides of pan, allowing excess chocolate to drip back into pan. Using a small knife, push candy off fork and onto second prepared sheet. Repeat with remaining balls, setting double boiler over hot water occasionally to rewarm chocolate to 115 degrees as needed. Refrigerate candies until chocolate is set, about 1 hour (reserve remaining chocolate in pan).

Line another baking sheet with waxed paper. Rewarm remaining chocolate over barely simmering water in double boiler; remove from over water. Place praline in large shallow dish. Dip half of 1 candy into chocolate, then roll around in palm to cover candy with a light coating of chocolate. Set in praline and roll gently, covering completely. Transfer to prepared sheet. Repeat with remaining candies. Refrigerate until firm. Transfer candies to paper cups. 

**Can be made 1 week ahead; refrigerate in airtight container. Let stand 20 minutes at room temperature before serving**

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